"I am the absolute monarch of my domain, which stretches from that staircase to this desk."
- Mary Doria Russell, Children of God
I am the emperor of unimportant decisions. I can choose to rearrange perching in my bird exhibits. I can decide what enrichment to implement on a given day. I can trim the plants in my exhibits. And I don't want to brag, but when it came time to target train animals in my section, I was given the supreme honor of picking what color the targets were to be.
Anything bigger than that, I usually need to get permission from someone.
A lot of the time, when I go to ask my curator or director for permission or an opinion on something I want to do, they look at me in a baffled way that implies that they don't care and leave me to my own devices. That being said, I've learned from watching other keepers that it definitely does not pay to assume that they will be okay with whatever you want to do and figure that it's better to ask forgiveness than permission.
Of course, my curator has to answer to the director and directors have to answer to... who exactly?
Unless a zoo or aquarium is privately owned by a single individual, someone down the line has to make the ultimate decisions (and even then, you have to answer to USDA or some other agency). Traditionally, most zoos and aquariums were run by cities or other government entities, so it was the mayor who had the final say-so. Today, the lines of governance for many institutions are less clear. Some institutions are quasi-governmental, also being run by non-profit boards of directors or commissions. The people who sit on these may be governmental types, or they may be professionals or academic experts, or they may be wealthy donors or interested community leaders. Together with the institution's director (though now many institutions have a president or CEO instead), they set the course for the management of the institution.
The question is who should make the decisions about the management of the zoo or aquarium? I feel that the more stakeholders who are involved in the process, the better the outcome, but for each issue there is someone who should be listened to more, an opinion that should carry more weight than others.
For all things pertaining to the animal collection, I strongly feel that the curator (representing the animal staff) and the vets should have the loudest voice. Yes, the mayor or CEO might really like gorillas and think that they are the perfect addition to your zoo, but if the people who actually will have to manage said apes think that it's a poor decision - the zoo doesn't have the space or resources, or there are other priorities at this time, or one of a thousand other reasons - their warnings should be heeded. If an animal needs to be shipped out as part of a breeding program that is important for the long-term survival of the species, that recommendation should be followed... even if the members of the community will miss that animal. If an animal's quality of life is in serious decline and the curator and vet advocate euthanasia, their opinion should not be dismissed just because other decision makers don't want to admit that it may be the best choice.
(Of course, all of this implies that the curator, vet, and animal staff will all agree on what the best decision is, which seldom happens. They do, however, all tend to band together against bad decisions imposed from the outside).
Everyone has an area of expertise, whether it is finance or animal care or community relations, and everyone should be willing to voice opinions on their areas of expertise. They can voice opinions of other areas, of course, but sometimes it's important to know what you don't know. That doesn't mean rubber-stamp the decisions made by those who do claim expertise, but certainly offer their ideas consideration.
This article popped into my head while I read an editorial up from Canada, advocating independence for the Toronto Zoo. After the incident with the elephants last year, I have little doubt that many of the keepers there have little love for their governing body. Not everyone involved in governing a zoo will have the same idea of what is best for the institution. At the very least, however, there should be no doubt that everyone is on the same side - making their institution better.